As South Africa struggles with the policy challenges of meeting the ever-growing demand by business and consumers for energy to fuel development and economic growth, households are faced with the increasing cost of electricity and other forms of energy, as well as the ongoing possibility of disruptive load shedding.
The global climate change agenda also has a significant role to play in this dilemma, and many consumers are concerned about ‘greening’ the energy supply of their homes and offices to supplant coal-fired electricity with clean, renewable alternatives.
One of key messages from this year’s Africa Energy Indaba, held recently at the Sandton Convention Centre, is that the global energy landscape has changed beyond recognition and that South Africa and its neighbours will have to lead the way in meeting the energy needs of the sub-continent within this global context.
Balancing poverty and sustainability
For Government, the challenge is to balance our urgent need to tackle poverty and underdevelopment, which requires energy for health, education and other social considerations as well as to fuel growth, while bearing in mind the imperative for a sustainable energy future.
These factors have combined to open up the market for alternatives to the Eskom power grid in a way that has never been seen before, and it is now commonplace for the roofs of suburban homes and office buildings to sport solar panels to heat water tanks and pools.
‘South Africans have realised that we now have a significant role to play as individuals and good corporate citizens in determining the energy mix that will power our homes and offices now and in future,’ says Liz Hart, the MD of Africa Energy Indaba.
‘In a sense, this has ‘decentralised’ the power debate and empowered consumers with more choices, as well as opening up opportunities for both smaller entrepreneurs and big business.’
Power to the people
While Government policy will still determine how South Africa sources the baseload capacity that fuels our economy, much of the ‘power’ so to speak has shifted into the hands of consumers, NGOs, development agencies and businesses, who now have a range of choices about where, how and what energy is supplied at what cost.
Also, constraints on electricity supply, however undesirable, have had the positive effect of highlighting the need for a paradigm shift in how the national power grids of the future will operate. The smart grids of the future will help us use electricity more intelligently by being responsive to the behaviour of users.
With the call for clean energy alternatives to replace our reliance on coal-fired generation, nuclear power is also likely to make up a greater part of South Africa’s energy mix in future.
In terms of the newly-unveiled Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), nuclear power will make up 23% of all new electricity generation capacity in 20 years. Coal, which currently meets about 92% of demand, will account for only 48%, renewable energy sources 16,5%, nuclear 13,5% and hydroelectric and gas-generated power 22%.
But these long-term solutions look ahead 20 years or more; what are the options for South Africans right now?
Solar: popular and easily accessible
With our abundant sunshine, solar energy is one of the most popular and easily accessible renewable alternatives and many households are taking advantage of the Eskom subsidy to install solar water heaters. At the recent Africa Energy Indaba conference and exhibition this year, some 60% of exhibitors were showcasing solar options.
However, speakers at the conference alongside the exhibition were simultaneously debating numerous other renewable and alternative options, including geothermal energy, wind power, biomass and waste generation, gas and hydroelectric power.
In rural and agricultural areas research and development projects are under way to show how, for example, farmers can use their own agricultural waste to generate enough biomass energy to run small installations such as irrigation pumps. In rural areas, small-scale distributed grids powered by solar radiation or geothermal energy can supply enough energy to meet the needs of a town or village.
‘In order to determine what mix of the available energy sources is best for their needs, South Africans first need to understand and appreciate that the energy landscape has changed. We all now have the power to make a difference in our own homes and communities, but we will have to be willing to change our energy behaviour and adjust our expectations,’ says Hart.
Instead of single giant delivering electricity, the buzzwords and phrases for keeping the lights on today are diversifying power sources by creating an energy mix in terms of both type and supplier, efficient energy use through energy conservation and demand-side management and achieving self-sufficiency by reducing dependency on the grid.
Along the way it would also be a bonus if we manage to create a future for our children in which, everyone has all the sustainable energy they need in order to live, work, grow, learn and play to their full potential.
‘Africa Energy Indaba 2012 will continue to explore the energy options that are available to South Africa as one of the energy leaders on the African continent,’ says Hart. ‘By encouraging vigorous and stimulating debate at the policy level and engaging big business and other stakeholder in exploring new technologies and solutions to our energy crisis, we are able to contribute to ensuring that all South Africans are able to access energy in a sustainable way in their homes, at work and in their communities.’